“What exactly does it mean to be an asshole?”
That was how New York magazine writer Mark Harris boiled down Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network in a 2010 piece on the movie and its screenwriter. Sorkin’s past work is littered with characters that are intensely driven, successful, and can charitably be described as “difficult.” In writing for TV – most notably NBC’s The West Wing – Sorkin knew how to soften the edges of these overachievers. Yes, they could be hard to deal with, but they realized it (usually by the end of the episode), and cared enough about those around them to make amends for their behavior.
Then along came The Social Network, and Mark Zuckerberg. While ostensibly about the creation of Facebook, the movie is actually an intense character study of the website’s founder. Sorkin’s Zuckerberg was an asshole who knew it, but only cared enough to feel a little bad about it – making amends was not that character’s style. After another stint on TV with the similarly fractious Will McAvoy of The Newsroom, now Sorkin gives us Steve Jobs. From Zuckerberg to McAvoy to Jobs, something of an asshole evolution is evident. This time the asshole genius knows what he is and he doesn’t give a damn. The result of Sorkin’s writing is as compelling and multi-layered a character study as he delivered with The Social Network, with a dramatic structure as tight as Citizen Kane.
Sorkin manages to give us the scope and understanding of Steve Jobs’ entire life by focusing on just three days, which span almost two decades. They are arguably the three most important days in Jobs’ life, because they each feature various culminations of his career, the one thing that gave him a purpose. The first act focuses on Jobs’ unveiling of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, a product launch that, to the Apple CEO’s mind, was all about the computer saying “hello” (both literally and figuratively). Sorkin’s script and Michael Fassbender’s masterful performance as Jobs give insight into the mind of a person so driven that even the smallest of details doesn’t escape his notice.
In the minutes leading up to the 1984 Mac presentation, Jobs is desperately trying to ensure everything is perfect. From haranguing his programmers to fix their problematically mute computer, to sending his assistant on a quest for just the right presentation apparel, to fighting with the woman who insists Jobs is the father of her child, success or failure seems as close as the difference between clicking “restart” or “shut down.” The second and third acts – concerning Jobs’ launch of the company NeXT in 1988 after Apple fired him, and his return to Apple in 1998 with the launch of the iMac – follow similarly fraught trajectories.
Sorkin is one of the best writers of dialog working today, and the screenplay for Steve Jobs provides ample evidence of that. The conversations are snappy and smart and never a word is wasted. For instance, midway through the film, Steve Wozniak, the programmer who co-founded Apple with Jobs, confronts his friend about the credit he takes for other people’s work. Jobs tells Wozniak a story about an orchestra, seemingly as a way to dodge his friend’s accusation. If every person playing in one has mastery over their instrument, and has the music right in front of them, what is the point of the conductor? The key is that each member plays their instrument, but the conductor plays the orchestra. That’s what Jobs does, he tells Wozniak. He is the visionary that creates something as beautiful as a symphony out of dozens of people each playing their own instrument.
Director Danny Boyle is a conductor in his own right. He took the screenplay Sorkin wrote, the contributions from his crew, and the talent of actors like Fassbender, Seth Rogen, and Kate Winslet to orchestrate his own symphony in Steve Jobs. Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler keep the camera constantly moving, giving the whole film a kinetic feel akin to last year’s phenomenally shot Birdman. This theme of orchestras and symphonies leads perfectly to composer Daniel Pemberton, who shows off magnificent versatility by crafting a score that shifts accordingly to match each of the film’s three distinct acts.
In the first act, Pemberton uses a synthesizer-heavy accompaniment to evoke the new wave aesthetic of the mid-1980s. The musician changes themes and instrumentation completely in the second act, in which Jobs’ transition to his new company, NeXT, after being fired from Apple is depicted in decidedly operatic terms. To match the setting and dynamics of presenting in a musical performance hall, Pemberton scores the sequence with his own opera and it fits seamlessly into the film. For the last segment, the soundtrack takes on a decidedly millennial, digital feel. Pemberton even wrote the music on a MacBook Pro. Changing the score in this way gives each act of the film its own unique feel, making Steve Jobs a triptych experience.
Of course at the center of the film is human drama. The human drama of a man trying to achieve great things, and the people left in his wake. Without convincing performances, Steve Jobs wouldn’t work at all. Fassbender is absolutely magnetic as Jobs. Kate Winslet holds her own as Jobs’ assistant, Joanna Hoffman. Her character is the weakest link in the screenplay – a real life His Girl Friday, ready to assist this great man however possible – but Winslet gives Hoffman a clear sense of purpose. She is there to support Jobs, but she’s anything but a yes-woman, in fact that’s why he values her so much. She is willing to give Jobs a dose of hard truth when he needs it. Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak is warm and emotionally complex. You can see the pain on Rogen’s face when Wozniak tries to square his conflicting emotions of loyalty, anger, frustration, and maybe even hate for his co-worker and friend.
After a strong showing in a limited release, Steve Jobs completely tanked on its wide theatrical opening weekend, and that’s a real shame. The film is one of the best of the year, and it deserves as big an audience as it can get. Danny Boyle and his collaborators brought stylistic elements that crackle on the screen. Aaron Sorkin wrote an erudite, funny, and dramatically satisfying character study of one of the most innovative minds of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and he did it without deifying him.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The screenplay (both dialog and structure) is about as tight as they get, Danny Boyle's direction is masterful, and all the performances are nuanced and emotionally complex.
- The portrait painted of Jobs is a fascinating one, and it leaves you thinking long after it ends.
- In short, it's one of the best movies of the year.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm ashamed to have left Jeff Daniels completely out of the main review. He plays John Sculley, the man Jobs blames for getting him ousted by the board at Apple. Daniels' career of late (excepting his return to the character of Harry in last year's Dumb and Dumber sequel) has been full of characters like this: self-assured-to-the-point-of-smug professionals who speak hard truths. He brings a level of gravitas to these roles that is immeasurable.
- Sorkin is known for his use of the "walk and talk," and there is plenty of the device on display in Steve Jobs. Director Boyle keeps the camera fluid and the energy high while the characters deliver their lines.